In North America and perhaps beyond, the American eel is the obvious winner in the strange and mysterious freshwater fish categories. They more closely resemble a snake in appearance and locomotion, but are as much a fish as bass and walleyes. Of course bass don’t wrap their bodies around your arm while you try to unhook them and walleyes don’t crawl across damp fields in search of worms. But eels are familiar to those who fish for catfish, carp, and other sportfish-they’re catchable with well-presented natural baits, put up a memorable struggle, and are the basis of a fine meal when properly prepared.
Rod: 6- to 11-foot medium-power spinning rod.
Reel: medium-capacity spinning reel.
Line: 6- to 10-pound-test abrasion-resistant mono.
Eels are opportunistic feeders, eating insect larvae, small minnows, dead fish, and anything else they can catch or find on the bottom. Their sense of taste is more acute than the channel cat’s, so few edible organisms go unnoticed. Night crawlers, small pieces of oily cutbait, and chicken livers are proven eel attractors. The same slip and drift rigs used for catfish catch eels. Use #6 to #2 long-shank hooks to match their small mouths, but don’t use light-wire models-even small eels pull hard enough to quickly straighten an Aberdeen-style hook.
American eel are catadromous, meaning they spawn in the ocean, but live most of their lives in freshwater. In the spring, eels migrate from ponds and headwater streams to the open ocean. Precisely where they spawn remains a mystery, but their one-way journey is thousands of miles long. Young eels then drift in the Gulf Stream for a year before arriving at the North American coast. Male eels remain in brackish water estuaries, but females may move hundreds of miles inland. They move overland around barriers like dams until they reach suitable ponds and streams. They hold in deep, quiet water during the day and emerge at night to feed.
Fishing for eels is not unlike fishing for bullheads, except eels are even harder to hold once caught. In ponds, lakes, and sloughs, cast bait rigs to shallow flats adjacent to deep water. In rivers, look for riffles at the head of a deep hole or quiet backwater areas near deep water. Dams concentrate migrating eels by temporarily blocking their upstream migration and distracting them with a steady supply of dead or injured baitfish. They often nibble gently at a bait, but quickly swallow the hook if you don’t set immediately. To handle an eel you want to keep or release, dip your hand in water then press your palm into dry sand-this improves your grip on their slick skin.
Skin an eel by wrapping a stout cord around its neck just behind the gills. Cut a ring through the skin just below the cord, being careful not to cut too deeply into the flesh. Grasp the skin with a pliers and peel it off all the way down to the tail. Remove the head, fins, and entrails, and it’s ready for baking, frying, or smoking.